The metaverse – a virtual world in which people mimic their real identities or are free to live as someone completely different – is coming. For retailers, it can be a revenue hub where virtual merchandise can help metaverse residents realize their vision for themselves.
But as Meta has shown in its recent financial statements, it also comes with financial risks. The metaverse division, Reality Labs, made billions of losses The past two years.
Most potential Metaverse users, retailers, and marketers have a lot of questions about how this all works. We asked Justin Hochberg, founder and CEO of Virtual Brand Group, to explain how this emerging technology will work. His agency has built Forever 21 Shop City, a virtual retail setup in Roblox, which is itself a social gaming environment — not technically the Metaverse, but a prototype that will give retailers a taste of what’s to come.
In Shop City, customers buy virtual clothes for their avatars and create their own Forever 21 stores. In the Roblox environment, customers will receive coupons for buying the same physical item – for those who want to pair with their avatar Roblox in real life.
Describe the metaverse for retailers and marketers who have not yet grasped the concept.
Justin Hochberg: Let me describe it to you on a visceral level. The important thing about “metaverse” is not whether it is Roblox, Fortnite, Meta, Layer2, crypto or NFT.
Marc Andreessen invented the Mosaic Browser 25 or 26 years ago. Then you started seeing URLs on billboards.
People said, “What is this?” and they said, ‘Can you explain the internet? What is that ?”
I’d say, “That’s what you want it to be.”
“Well, whose is it?”
“What can you do with it?”
None of these answers were helpful. Now, 26 years later, insert the word metaverse and we are in the same place. Three years from now, you won’t be wondering what the metaverse is, just like you won’t be wondering what the internet is. Internet, who cares? What interests you is Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, whatever. That’s what people understand. People don’t understand it because they haven’t used it yet. It’s just that idea, and it’s not “Hey, can I get a book cheaper, faster?” It’s internet.
Let’s go back a little. So what’s a Roblox experience for CX executives who might be wondering if they should go in that direction?
Hochberg: Any type of brand — whether it’s fashion, TV or film — when you’re selling to consumers, you want to be where your consumers are. For many people, that means having some form of store, whatever it may look like. You have some form of e-commerce, you use some form of social media, maybe you do a lot of other things – omnichannel – to meet your customers wherever they are. The Metaverse is a very complicated thing, but it’s just another place where many consumers already exist. But it’s — and here’s the trick — better than your store, your e-comm, and your social media. It is the most effective sales channel since the advent of selling things you will never find.
Hochberg: Let’s approach it in three ways: the first is that it is a frictionless customer experience. Going to a store is kind of a flawed business model. I have to go – now is the time. I have to park. I have to find the store. I have to walk through the store. I need to find the article. I have to queue. I have to turn everything back. The average time people spend in a Home Depot store is 5.9 minutes – that’s the time they actually spend buying Outside from the store. You want to get out as soon as possible. Ecommerce takes away a lot of that friction because I don’t have to do half of it. When I search on Amazon, they either have it or they don’t, I buy it or not, and that’s fine. So in terms of transaction efficiency, it’s great, but not tacky. A transaction is inbound and outbound. I have no affinity with the transaction.
Roblox Forever 21 takes time – in a good way. It’s insanely sticky. The marginal cost is zero. So it is the most profitable thing you can sell. We’ve recreated the number 1 store in the world: Disneyland, which is just a very chic store. You are actually only traveling 18% of the time. Usually it’s about making money – when you buy the pass, the mug, the t-shirt, the lunch. Not only do I want to spend time there, but I will spend all day there to give you my money. I’ll be cruising all week to give you my money. It’s sticky. Stores have been pursuing experiential retailing for decades. Barnes & Noble started by buying comfortable sofas for you to read on. Starbucks gave you free WiFi. Chanel offers you champagne and Evian water. This has everything to do with experiential marketing. It’s not that sticky yet. Disneyland is sticky.
We’ve taken the Disney model and the experience you want to keep. We transform a retail brand into an entertainment experience. People come to Roblox because it’s social.
Why Gen Z wants to buy pixelsas opposed to physical things?
Hochberg: Why do you want to buy something? Take the average person. They buy many things. They buy t-shirts, sneakers and sweatshirts. Maybe buy suits and ties or whatever they buy for their everyday life. Why doesn’t everyone dress like Mark Zuckerberg and wear the same hoodie every day? Most people don’t. They have an outfit for going out on a Saturday and an outfit for cleaning the garden. They could wear the same outfit, but they don’t. Why is that? Because we as humans want to present ourselves in a certain way under certain circumstances.
The #1 hallmark of Gen Z is self-expression. How do I feel? How do I want to express myself? In the real world we are limited. …in the virtual world. You can be whoever you want and you are expected to express yourself however you want. I can wear a dress, I can be a boy, I can share. I can be cyberpunk. I can do it differently every day, or with different groups of friends.
Here’s the other thing: the real world is harsh. Most people can’t visit the Grand Canyon, let alone buy a pair of Nike’s or even Gucci’s. In the virtual world, we can simulate the Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal or an NFL game. You can own Nike sneakers, Forever 21 wardrobe, Gucci wallet. So the reason the metaverse is so powerful is that it’s massive in scale, it caters to the ambitious, and has a world where you socialize rather than transact. That’s why people spend time there and buy things – they want to present themselves in their own vision of how they want to be seen.
Let’s say Roblox went offline, either out of free will or necessity. Is there a way that people who have bought things on it can take them to another platform, or do the virtual clothes come with the ship?
Hochberg: People think Roblox is the metaverse. This is not the case. It is a social game platform. Facebook is a platform, and you go there, you build your profile. I can’t do anything with it except put it on Instagram and WhatsApp. It’s closed.
Roblox is a 3D version of it, with games, houses and toys. It’s not technically part of what we call Web 3.0. Web 3.0 is about the consumer’s ability to own the item, not the platform. That’s why when you buy something in the decentralized or something sandbox, when you go to other platforms, you own it and whatever happens to those worlds, you still own it. Just like when you buy Nike sneakers, if Nike goes out of business, you still own the sneakers. It’s Web 3.0. The infrastructure allows you to take it anywhere, it is on a widely transferable technical blockchain protocol that allows you to own the asset.
How do NFTs get there?
Hochberg: It’s just a digital asset on the blockchain. That’s all it is, be it a work of art, a sneaker, a movie clip, a LeBron James highlight, whatever. Many people now see it as art or digital images or Bored Ape Yacht Club. Much of it is highly speculative and that is why many people lose money. Sometimes they see the headline like “Snoop Dogg sells NFTs for $44 million”, but most NFTs don’t sell.
What is the real opportunity of the metaverse for marketers and technology leaders? Earn income? Increase brand awareness? Both? And how do you get started without spending so much capital that you get fired?
Hochberg: By using the metaverse as a sales channel, you unlock entirely new revenues with no incremental costs. I sell Forever 21 fashion worth millions of dollars that costs me $10,000 to make a line, and then each item has zero marginal cost. This item can live forever without any defects or supply chain problems. No refund. It can live on Roblox as long as Roblox exists, without any degradation.
You are not allowed to leave a white T-shirt in the store. You don’t have the storage space. It will deteriorate, it will get dirty. Virtual objects are cheap to make, with no marginal costs. You want to be where your consumers are: 200 million people play Roblox every month. People spend millions of hours a month in Forever 21 Shop City, which goes beyond social media.
Whatever you build into your metaverse, it could cost you a few thousand dollars to create an NF T or a virtual fashion line, or it could cost you half a million dollars. It’s not expensive compared to what people pay for TV commercials, South by Southwest activations, or whatever. The key is that if you get in now, it’s relatively cheap. Not only can you generate new revenue, but you can also create new consumer connections.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service, and assistive technologies for TechTarget.